Before the Burp: Can DSM be the cattleman’s savior?
Can a science & biotech organization be at the heart of reducing methane emissions from the production of beef and dairy products?
A common image that comes to mind when speaking of climate change and global warming is that of fossil fuels & other non-renewable forms of energy and the alarming rate at which we are exploiting these limited resources. A not so intuitive image of climate change, however, is that of cattle. Cattle primarily raised for beef and dairy products are prolific methane producers and in the process account for one of the biggest causes of climate change. Methane (CH4) is a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more powerful than Carbon Dioxide (CO2). While it may seem surprising, the science behind it is incredibly simple. A cow’s rumen or “fore-stomach” contains microbes that ferment what the cow eats, creating methane, which it then belches into the air. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 37 percent of human induced methane comes from livestock worldwide. In terms of the resources, largely feed and land, required to raise these cattle for dairy and beef production, the numbers look scarier. It takes 7 to 13 pounds of feed to produce a pound of beef. Approximately, 70% of the land in the United States used for food production is used for beef and dairy products. With these massive numbers in play simultaneously, an environmentally viable and mutually beneficial solution may seem unlikely at first.
While a simplistic solution to this challenge may seem to be to reduce production and thus consumption of beef and dairy products, it is neither the most realistic nor the most feasible solution. Additionally, considering the strong lobby the industry represents worldwide and specially in the United States, Europe and Brazil, it does not even present a beneficial solution to the billion-dollar food industry. Easily amongst the most popular and the most consumed products in the world, this issue presents a herculean task for environmentalists and conservationists.
However, DSM, a global science based company active in health, nutrition and materials, based out of Netherlands may seem to have a few solutions up its sleeves. Methanogens are the microbes that ferment the indigestible feed and are primarily responsible for the creation of Methane that a cow belches. DSM’s potential solution to the problem is to create Methanogen-specific drugs containing compounds that target and block methanogen enzymes that are necessary for the methanogens survival and thus for methane creation. This potential solution is first being lab tested before they are actually tested on livestock. This process is estimated to help reduce methane emissions by up to 30%.
Another seemingly interesting opportunity for DSM is to go back to basics and test for potential vaccinations. A solution currently being tested in New Zealand where livestock is put out to pasture and not intensively farmed as it is in Europe, Brazil or the United States, vaccinations may prove to provide a quicker solution to the methane belching problem. Vaccinations will require DSM to synthesize the proteins of the methanogens in order to produce antibodies in the livestock’s blood and saliva.
Considering the ever growing population globally and within the United States, Brazil and Europe that are currently the largest consumers and exporters of beef and dairy products and are growing exponentially year on year, the above two solutions could potentially provide the largest environmentally sustainable business opportunities for DSM. One that is mutually beneficial for the food production industry, the governments of various nations especially those that have ratified the Paris Agreement on Climate change, the environmentalists and lastly the growing consumers since it provides a reasonably effective chance at reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, while causing no apparent detriment to the animal.
Student comments on Before the Burp: Can DSM be the cattleman’s savior?
Nice Samar. If you are interested in this you should check out the “Cowspiracy” documentary on Netflix. The only thing that makes me skeptical of this, is the target audience this would have to reach. The reality is that major cattle owners only account for a small percentage of total cattle. There are many small and medium sized producers who would definitely be hard to reach and persuade. Hopefully the diffusion of a possible vaccine becomes feasible.
Super interesting, Samar! A great example of an idea that was created out of an opportunity from climate change.
You briefly touched on it, but I think it will be crucial to determine who will be responsible for the costs of implementing such a solution. One idea could be some sort of completely government subsidized program for farmers. On the other hand, would this only spur further growth or an industry that contributes so heavily to the overall emissions problem?
As a pilot, several markets may be very open to trying this, if they haven’t already. In Switzerland, for example, most cattle farmers are quite small (<20 cows), and they invest heavily to differentiate themselves as having the healthiest cattle and most sustainable operations. This could be one way for them to further differentiate themselves and improve profits, while helping the environment.
Nice post, Samar. Another interesting attempt to address this issue is being doing by the US based company, Intrexon (XON). One of the divisions within Intrexon has the technology to genetically engineer the microorganisms that produce the methane to instead produce CO2, water, and biofuel (the molecular compositions are similar). I wonder how much of the 37% of human induced methane coming from livestock is related to burping as opposed to the decomposing manure. Instead of engineering the microbiome of the cattle (or other livestock) and making sure it is still safe, would it be as effective or more to address the decomposing feces? Once again, there’s power in poop!!
Very interesting Samar, and agreed something the world needs to deal with. Another piece of the puzzle I think that is highly related to raising cattle is manure management – which is very similar to methane from beef/dairy cattle in that it adds to the emission of methane and other gasses. According to the EPA in 2014 this accounted for 13% of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions – rivaling the emissions of just live beef/diary cattle. In learning how to deal with one I could imagine we would also learn significant amounts in how to deal with the other problem.